The last days of summer have faded away, so fall fertilization packages are already underway. Now is the time to fertilize to strengthen plant and turf roots so they survive the winter ahead. Keep clients in the loop as you work through your fall services. While some clients just want a green lawn and don’t care about the details, others want to understand what they’re paying for. Either way, staying in touch with clients creates opportunities for future service sales.

The importance of fall

If they’re not already on board with a program, selling clients on fall fertilization is important. In fact, Frank Wood, lawn care manager for Columbia Landcare in Midway, Missouri, says that if a client was only going to pick one time of year to have their lawn fertilized, it should be in the fall, because the grass is preparing itself for the winter and building a root system that will carry it through.

Bob Bertog, owner of Bertog Landscape Co., in Wheeling, Illinois, agrees. “If you had to pick one time to fertilize, it should be the fall,” he says. “In preparing the turf for winter, you want to stimulate the roots. As the plants shut down, the roots, even after the first frost, can still be very active. With fall fertilization you’re helping ensure the turf comes out strong in the spring.”

“Fall fertilization is the foundation for a successful turfgrass fertility program,” adds John S. Kruse, Ph.D, a research agronomist with Koch Agronomic Services, LLC. “Winter survival and spring green-up depend, to a significant degree, on a sound fall fertilizer application, particularly when combined with timely cultural practices.”

Across the country, fall fertilization has an important role. Fall fertilization is critical for cool-season grasses in the North and the West because the turf is trying to recover from summer stress while building carbohydrate (stored) energy to survive the winter and initiate spring growth, Kruse says. “In a similar manner, warm-season grasses in the Southeast and Southwest need to store nutrients, particularly potassium, prior to going dormant,” he adds.

Educating the client

While lawn care operators already know the importance of fall fertilization, clients often require education. “It’s really important to educate your customers,” Bertog says. “Many times, once Labor Day is over customers stop thinking about their lawns. As they say goodbye to summer, they stop paying attention to the turf. That’s when you need to come in with the reminders about fall procedures.”

Landscape professionals should make sure they inform clients of the benefits of fall fertilization. “Those numerous benefits include better fall and winter color, earlier spring green-up, increased shoot density and increased root mass and length,” says Christopher S. Gray Sr., product marketing manager, professional fertilizers, Lebanon Turf. “All of these advantages actually set up the performance of the turfgrass plant for the upcoming season.”

Educating the client can also help contractors maximize this service opportunity. Clients may be less likely to skimp if they understand the program. “By educating them on the importance of a robust fall fertilization program to the following season’s turfgrass health, lawn care operators might see increased acceptance of the last application of the season,” Kruse says.

For most, fall fertilization is part of an overall package. Bertog says fall fertilization is part of his company’s standard maintenance program, and most customers are already signed up for that entire program, but if clients are looking to cut something out, Bertog always advises them against cutting fall fertilization.

Photo: Katarzyna Bialasiewicz/thinkstockphoto

Trees Need Fall Fertilization, Too

Fall is not only an ideal time to fertilize turf, it’s also an ideal time to give trees and shrubs that important boost as the winter months near. But tree fertilization isn’t always as easy a sell. It’s not uncommon for clients to overlook their trees and focus on their turf needs. That’s why taking the time to upsell tree fertilization makes good sense for lawn care professionals already on the property for the turf.

“Trees could often benefit from a deep root fertilization so we definitely take the time while on the property to evaluate that need,” says Faulkner Bell, director of operations for Coastal Greenery Landscaping in Brunswick, Georgia. “We don’t have that on a set schedule as it’s a very property-specific thing. One site might have compaction issues while another may not.”

Keith Bowman, maintenance division manager at McHale Landscape Design in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, says deep root fertilization can be a nice upsell to a fall service package. Sometimes Bowman says he will sub out that work to an arborist, depending how much of it they get.

While it certainly can be a nice add-on, tree fertilization does typically require a bit of client education. It’s just not one of those services clients often inquire about on their own. To help make the sale explain why fall fertilization makes sense.

In the fall, deciduous trees and shrubs shed their foliage for the year, and their growth rate decreases. As the need for new growth lessens, the roots of trees take the nutrients from the soil and apply them toward other important functions, such as disease resistance. Excess nutrients are then stored in the roots and ready to go when needed in spring. Landscape professionals should let their clients know fall tree fertilization can help give trees a great kick-start, gearing them up for the next growing season.

Columbia Landcare’s clients also typically sign up for a comprehensive program. That annual package includes five applications: early spring, late spring, early summer grub control, early fall fertilization and late fall fertilization. If clients are willing to pay extra, the company also offers an additional sixth application called the “winterization application.” This helps provide later season green as well as early season green come spring.

While many companies do package their fall fertilization services into overall annual plans, some sell it a la carte to those who have not signed up for the full deal. It can pay to remind clients of the importance of this service if they’re not already receiving it.

“Whenever we’re on a property in the fall, we always try to sell fall fertilization, seeding and aeration,” says Keith Bowman, maintenance division manager at McHale Landscape Design in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. “It should really be done every year, but, at the very least, every other year. If our customers are already on a fall turf program then fall fertilization is already included in that package.”

Although it can start to just feel like a routine part of the program you offer, it’s important not to forget the significance of fall fertilizing. “Fall fertilization should be the focus of the annual service program, not just considered a part of it,” stresses Gray. “With all the benefits it provides, this one application will do more to help retain customers than anything else. That’s because it sets up their lawns to perform better. Once the customer sees this improvement, upselling other services will become easier.”

Selling more

The fall is definitely a great time to upsell other services, potentially building a bit of profit before going into the off-season. As the busy season slows, there are a number of fall procedures that can take the place of regular maintenance.

“Fall fertilization can be a nice gateway to selling other fall and winter services,” Bowman says. “It’s also a good time to talk to the client and review the turf’s overall performance. Doing that helps us get ahead of complaints. If it didn’t perform well, we’re going to get a complaint, so we’d rather be proactive with those reviews.”

“Lawn care operators have a great opportunity in the fall to provide add-on services, such as core aeration and university-recommended herbicide applications, particularly for broadleaf weeds,” Kruse says. “These cultural and plant protection practices can be supplied in conjunction with a fall fertilizer application to really set the consumer’s lawn up for a beautiful fall lawn as well as rapid spring green-up.”

Turf disease control may also be part of an upsell. This year, in being proactive, McHale chose to add fungicide to the 2014 turf packages, though clients could, of course, opt out if they wanted.

Photo: Egilshay/thinkstockphoto

“We got tired of all the complaint calls about fungus,” Bowman says. “So we decided to go ahead and include fungicides in the overall package. It will hopefully be a step toward solving the problem though, as often happens with those that opt out, they may still complain when they see fungus. In those cases we need to remind them that they chose to opt out.”

Faulkner Bell, director of operations for Coastal Greenery Landscaping in Brunswick, Georgia, says fungus has been a hot topic in their region as well. The cool weather and increased rainfall makes it an ongoing problem. As a result, the application of fungicides is vital at this time of year and an important upsell if those services aren’t already in an overall package.

All of these issues make it important for a regular dialogue between a company and its clients. In Coastal Greenery’s case, since the techs on site don’t typically speak with the customers, the company has assigned client relations managers to meet with its commercial customers once a month. This is the time the customer is brought up to speed on the fertilization schedule as well as a time to talk about other services. General fall cleanup is another potential upsell opportunity.

“We do have a lot of live oaks in our region, and they basically rain leaves, so come fall a big part of our routine maintenance is spent battling leaves,” Bell says. “Of course, this is also a good time to discuss general tree work. Getting a canopy under control that had a lot of growth over the spring and summer will allow some sunlight in as we get into the cooler months. And although most people get caught up on spring being the time to plant, fall is actually a great time to talk about plantings as well.”

“Definitely utilize your time on the property as a touch point to talk about other services,” adds Bertog. “Dormant pruning, fall fertilization of trees and planning ahead for the spring are all things to talk about in the fall. Get clients thinking about spring now and get something on the books for next year. That helps retain them as a client. Remind clients that despite the snow and the sense that winter is never-ending, the truth is that spring can sneak up quickly and they should start thinking about it now. By talking about things early enough, you keep the momentum going.”

Photo: sasimoto/thinkstockphoto

Looking ahead

Going forward, it’s always important to stay on top of the latest trends. Bowman says he would always advise lawn care operators to make a concerted effort to stay on top of new regulations that might be enacted in one’s area. In the Bay Area where his company operates, there have been strict regulations coming down the pipeline in regards to fertilizer with phosphorus. “It’s so important to be mindful of country or state regulations,” Bowman says. “We’ve had to make changes to the way we do our fertilization program in order to be compliant.”

Though not as heavily mandated in his region, Wood says he’s already made changes to his firm’s program. “We’re probably using 30 or 40 percent less nitrogen than the typical lawn care program,” he says. “We’re still getting good results and it’s leaving behind less of a carbon footprint. Clients feel good about going green, and we feel good about having less impact on the environment, so it’s a win-win. In the last couple of years I’ve begun to emphasis the newer technology of fertilizers including extended release. Clients do like to see that you’re keeping up with the latest technology.”